The time has finally arrived, 30 years after the space shuttle Columbia blasted off into space her sister ship Atlantis roared into orbit just 2 days ago. It is estimated that near 1 million people flocked to the areas surrounding the Kennedy Space Center to watch the final ever launch with millions more tuning in from around the world to witness it online. I have to be honest and say that I missed the live event myself, blame goes to the sources that cited a 70% chance for no-go weather on the day, but I quickly caught up with the events spending hours pouring over the details of the last ever space shuttle mission over my morning coffee the day after.
STS-135 is a very unique mission in many ways. It began as STS-335 a Launch on Need mission designed to be launched if STS-134 had any problems on orbit and was unable to return to earth safely. For such missions a fully stacked orbiter has to be ready to launch within a very short time frame, usually on the order of a couple months. This means the usual shuttle preparations have to already be done in order to launch that quickly and with the shuttle program retiring that meant there would be one fully loaded orbiter that would essentially go to waste. Last year saw the proposal to turn STS-335 into STS-135 approved although without any specific funding for the additional mission. NASA announced in February that the mission would go ahead with funding approval or not, setting the stage for STS-135 to be the last shuttle mission in history.
The final mission of the space shuttle also shares the record of taking up the smallest crew with one of Challenger’s early missions STS-6, bringing only 4 astronauts into space. The reason for this is simple, since there are no other shuttles available to act as rescue boats should Atlantis not be able to return from orbit those stranded astronauts will have to come back down in the regular Soyuz missions. Whilst the International Space Station is quite capable of handling the extra load for a while it will still take almost a year just to ferry those 4 astronauts back down and many of the ISS contingency plans are based around having no more than 6 astronauts on the station at any one time (without additional craft docked). STS-135 then only brings the bare minimum crew required to complete the mission and all signs are pointing to them being able to return safely so far.
The payload of this mission is focused solely on keeping the ISS functioning for the rest of its intended lifetime, another 9 years or so. Atlantis carries in its payload bay one multi-purpose logistics module (named Raffaello) load with 16 resupply racks, the maximum it can carry, with an additional lightweight multi-purpose carrier that will be used to return some failed components back to earth for analysis. The failed components in question are a pump module for the external thermal cooling system and a ammonia pump module, both of which have already been replaced in orbit. STS-135 also carriers with an additional piece of equipment for the ISS, a proof of concept device for on-orbit refueling of satellites. For the demonstration it will be attached to the Dextre robot and should it prove successful the technology could make its way into the commercial sector. There will also be 2 iPhone 4s and 2 Nexus S’s carried up to be used with the ISS’s SPHEREs, basically small satellites that reside inside the space station.
It’s a historic time as this mission marks the beginning of the end to a 30 year endeavor that NASA has undertaken. It might not be the most glamorous end to the program, being basically a supply mission to keep the ISS going, but it’s an important one none the less ensuring that the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the availability of other craft doesn’t impact on NASA’s goals in space. For youngsters like me it marks the end of the iconic craft that we grew up with and I know its going to be a long time before another one will be able to take its place. For that simple fact the shuttle will always have a special place in my heart, just like I know it does in so many others.
You know something’s up when a space nut like myself misses some juicy blog fodder such as the latest Shuttle launch. Whilst I’ve been off slandering the iPad and its fans the good folks at NASA have been hard at work with STS-131 launching into space early in the morning just three days ago. It’s also a sign of the media’s waning interest in the Shuttle program as usually a few news outlets pick up on it and I’ll be treated to some wonderful Shuttle imagery over my morning coffee. That unfortunately wasn’t to be this time around.
STS-131 is the fourth last of the currently planned Shuttle missions and the second last mission for the space Shuttle Discovery. Additionally this will be the last mission to take up a full compliment of 7 astronauts and the last mission that any first time astronauts will be riding the Shuttle into space. Couple this with the mission’s payload (more on that below) it’s a sign that the Shuttle program is well on its way to retirement at the end of this year. All that’s left to do is gear the International Space Station up as much as we can whilst NASA sorts out what its next transport solution will be.
The biggest part of STS-131 is the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) called Leonardo. The MPLMs (there are three of them) are pressurized containers used to transport cargo to and from the ISS. It is currently full to the brim with extra equipment for the ISS that includes:
As well as the usual compliment of food and supplies for the various experiments currently residing aboard the ISS. There’s nothing really amazing or spectacular about the payload of this mission apart from the fact that this won’t be the last visit to the ISS that MPLM Leonardo will make, albeit in a different form.
In their current form the MPLMs aren’t suited for long duration flights connected to the ISS. They lack appropriate shielding and interconnects with the various systems aboard the ISS that would enable them to become a permanent fixture, which is why they’re always carried back down at the end of the mission. A while back the European Space Agency (ESA) suggested that in order to reduce the number of resupply missions needed the MPLM Donatello should be upgraded (it would then be called a Pressurized Multipurpose Module) to serve as a permanent storage module on the ISS. Initially the idea was rejected due to costs but the plan is going to go ahead using the Leonardo MPLM instead. So after it is brought back to earth after this mission Leonardo will undergo extensive upgrades and will then be launched back up on the last mission STS-133.
As we near that final end date of September 16, 2010 every shuttle launch I see is always accompanied by a small twinge of sadness. Whilst this isn’t the final flight for Discovery it still marks one of the very last missions that the Shuttle will ever fly. Much like seeing an old friend off on a long trip overseas you know that you’ll see them again, but you still can’t help but feel sad for their departure.
Last friday the shuttle Discovery launched into orbit signalling the beginning of STS-128. The launch couldn’t have gone smoother, as you can see from the video below:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwD7Xu7Mks4
There’s a couple things about this mission that I’ll note later but for the most part, this is what I’d call a stock standard mission for the shuttle. In essence this mission is about gearing up the International Space Station to cope with the larger crew it has been carrying of late, with the majority of the payload dedicated to upgrading existing facilities whilst replacing some of the more worn out pieces of gear. You’d be surprise then to learn that I consider this one of the more exciting missions as this is what space should be for everyone: routine.
The shuttle was conceived with the idea of having a fleet of 4 shuttles each capable of 10 launches per year. As we don’t see a launch like this every other month you’ll know that this didn’t happen. The story behind this is a blog post for another day but the idea behind the shuttle was to bring down the cost per launch for space travel. Speculation runs wild as to whether or not the Challenger and Columbia disasters are to blame for this but even prior to these incidents the launches per year were well below the 10 that the fleet was designed to accommodate at inception. With the fleet nearing retirement it is unfortunate that they will never reach their intended goal of significantly reducing cost to orbit and has lead us back down the path of the original Mercury and Gemini ideas (I.E. non-reusable craft).
STS-128 brings with it the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Leonardo, named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and not the famous artist and inventor. Inside is a few racks of life supporting equipment, crew quarters that are to be installed in the Kibo laboratory and something of a booby prize for one eager comedic news presenter, Stephen Colbert. Back at the start of the year NASA held a competition to name the new module that is now known as Tranquility. Colbert, who has a legion of fans who love to help out in situations like this, implored his viewers to send in votes to name the new module after him. Whilst he did win the vote NASA retained the right to name it with whatever name they saw fit. However, they recognised the service that Colbert had done to popularize space and offered to name their new treadmill after him. Colbert was elated and accepted the offer and the C.O.L.B.E.R.T is flying aboard the shuttle right now. It will be installed in Tranquility when the module is launched early next year on STS-130, but for now it will reside in the Harmony module.
This mission also brings with it a few science experiments, looking at fluid behaviour and heat pipe technology. As this is the main focus of the ISS it is good to see new experiments being brought up constantly as there is no end to the amount of work that could benefit from being conducted in the absence of gravity. Again this is nothing revolutionary, but it does show that we are making progress.
Whilst I may lament the fact that I can’t waffle on for pages about why this is such a significant flight due to the new hardware or some such it is still none the less exciting for me. Every launch is a beautiful tapestry of engineering, science and human engineering that NASA lays out for the world to see. Despite the bureaucratic boondoggles that have marred the shuttle program I’m still grateful for the progress it has brought humanity. I know the day will come when the shuttle launches for the last time and I hope to be there to watch it. Until then though I will shout its successes from the rooftops, even when they just routine like STS-128.